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The Zookeeper's Dilemma

The Zookeeper's Dilemma

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The Zookeeper's Dilemma

Length:
318 pages
5 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jun 27, 2017
ISBN:
9780993698224
Format:
Book

Description

After a lion suddenly transforms into a man right before her eyes, Lucy discovers she is descended from a long line of ancestor spirits. Divided into clans and constantly fighting among themselves for dominance, these spirits have secretly infiltrated and influenced civilization for millennia. But as humans begin to destroy the planet’s ecosystem and threaten the very existence of the spirits, the clans make plans to take control. Lucy must decide which faction to join before time runs out, a choice which could tip the balance and seal humanity’s fate. At the same time, a dark force seeks to use Lucy for its own ends, making her wonder if she'll even see tomorrow.

Publisher:
Released:
Jun 27, 2017
ISBN:
9780993698224
Format:
Book

About the author

Crazed recluse and sociophobe who has taken up writing after failing at everything else. Send pizza.


Book Preview

The Zookeeper's Dilemma - Sean Sandulak

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Prologue

As far as tea parties went, this one was sure to be the grandest of the year. Almost everyone was there for the festive occasion. Plunger, the one-eyed teddy bear sat across the blanket from Lady Whiskers. Miss Toots held her teacup with her long gray trunk next to Captain Croak. Even her gorilla friend, Jujube, had worn his best monkey suit for the occasion.

In fact, the only one missing was her bunny companion, Warren Hutch. He had not been seen since the infamous spring cleaning of last year when her mother had thrown out many of her old and worn toys. Warren had been her favorite for as long as she could remember despite having lost half of his stuffing through his threadbare skin. It was on days like today that she remembered him and felt a little bit sad at his absence.

So it was to Lucy’s great fortune, or perhaps it was just coincidence, that the rabbit chose this day to investigate who was making such a racket in his front yard. He regarded the girl cautiously, uncertain what to make of her. She was perhaps seven then, her pink pastel sundress a stark contrast to her black hair and dark brown skin. When he was satisfied that she seemed to be nothing more than a harmless little girl, the bunny made a few tentative hops toward the picnic blanket to get a better look at the festivities.

When she saw him, Lucy’s face beamed with delight. Not wanting to be an impolite host, she invited him to the party. Hello, Mr. Rabbit. Would you care to join us for tea? We have snacks too. She held out a paper plate on which rested the remaining three-quarters of her cucumber sandwich. In her mind’s eye, however, it was a silver platter full of the most delectable finger foods.

The rabbit only stared back at her and twitched his nose.

Or perhaps you would prefer a carrot? Lucy dipped her hand into the lukewarm water of a Tupperware container and held out a carrot stick.

That’s a little cliché, said the rabbit, but I would never turn down a free meal.

Puzzled, Lucy regarded the rabbit carefully. What does cliché mean?

The rabbit stood up on its haunches. That’s not possible. You shouldn’t be able to hear me.

I never met a talking rabbit before, said Lucy excitedly. Where did you come from?

The rabbit had his own priorities, however, and asked brusquely, Who was your father, child? What clan are you?

Mom doesn’t talk about my dad, answered Lucy. Her lips curled and her nose scrunched up in bewilderment. I don’t know what a clan is.

Your family, girl. What’s your family totem?

It’s just me and my mom. Uncle Henry stays with us at the ranch, but he’s not really my uncle. He’s just good friends with my mom.

This is impossible, said the rabbit. For a spirit child to be overlooked like this...and a female one at that! I have to find out who is behind this.

Wait. Don’t go, cried Lucy, but as she stood up, the rabbit bolted away into the bushes.

Of course, Lucy was familiar with the story of Alice and her White Rabbit. While hers was mostly brown and didn’t have a watch or vest, he did talk. She was certain that this must be the beginning of her magical journey to a faraway place, so she abandoned her picnic and went chasing after the little brown bunny.

The hedges and brambles left welts on her arms and legs as Lucy charged through the undergrowth. She thought she had lost him a couple of times only to see the flash of his white tail off to one side or the other. When the rabbit scrambled down into a hole in the ground, Lucy knew that she had to follow him, but there was an insurmountable problem. The hole was much too small for her to fit.

How am I supposed to follow you? she called after him, but she got no answer. Lucy considered whether she had missed something, some vital clue that would let her follow the rabbit to where he had come from, but she couldn’t think of anything. There was no signpost to follow, no potion to drink, no cake to eat. There were only the bushes and the dirt, so she did they only thing she could. She started to dig.

The land was packed and dry, and without a shovel it was hard work. After fifteen minutes of frantically breaking apart the earth with a stick and scooping out the sandy soil with her hands, she was exhausted and barely more than a foot deep in the ground. Lucy was starting to think this was not a portal to Wonderland or anywhere else, for that matter. It was just a hole in the ground.

Heading back to the picnic, Lucy no longer felt like playing. The tea party was ruined. Her dress was stained by grass and dirt, and her mother would be sure to yell at her for that. But the worst part by far was she knew she had lost her chance to have a grand adventure with fairy princesses, talking animals, or any of the other things she had read about.

Sitting down cross-legged on the blanket, Lucy began to wonder whether she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. Rabbits didn’t talk, she thought, trying hard to convince herself. Real animals may be cute and cuddly, or big and scary, but they weren’t smart like people. That was just in fairy tales, and those stories seemed so silly to her now. She could hardly believe she had ever been so gullible.

Spying the carrot sticks, she felt a sudden stab of anger and tossed them away into the bushes. The last of her energy spent, she curled up into a ball and rested her head on her knees. Her stuffed companions, still frozen in time where she had left them, stared blankly at her, unable to offer any comfort as Lucy quietly began to cry.

December 2, 2011

Lucy stroked the sleeping lion’s mane through the bars of his enclosure. Opportunities to be this close to the big cat were rare, and she wanted to take full advantage of it. She scratched his ear and noted how unusually warm it was. It would be a shame if he died now from an abscessed tooth after all that he’d been through. How’s Ani doing?

The same as when you asked me twenty minutes ago, Jace barked, but he softened his tone when he saw the concerned look on her face. He’s a fighter. I’m sure he’ll pull through. Frankly, I’m more worried about you. You look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.

I’m worried that his fever hasn’t broken yet, said Lucy.

Jace scratched his beard. Give it some more time. If he doesn’t improve soon, there are still some other antibiotics to try. The good news is the surgery went well, and his heart is in excellent shape. I expect him to be around for many years yet. He crouched beside her and rested his hand on her shoulder. I know he’s like family, but you need to go home and get some rest. I’ll call you if there’s any change.

It’d kill me if anything happened to him, said Lucy. In some ways, animals are more real to me than people. More honest, anyway.

You have a natural talent with them, said Jace. A real gift one might say. At least, I’ve always thought so. I still think you should have become a vet like me. It’s not too late, you know. If it’s about the money, I’m sure we could work something out.

Hmm, I don’t know, said Lucy. This wasn’t the first time that Jace had brought up going back to school. He was never pushy about it, but she always felt a little bad having to turn down his offers to help. When you’re a vet, you only see the animals at their worst, when they’re sick or hurt. It always breaks my heart to see them like that. I prefer working with them everyday, feeding them, taking care of them,...

...shoveling their shit.

Well, that comes with the territory, said Lucy. She shrugged. Everyone has to deal with crap in their jobs. Mine is just more literal. Besides, being a vet isn’t any better. I’ve seen you get pissed on a dozen times.

Occupational hazard, said Jace, but I have assistants and you keepers to do the day-to-day chores. As senior vet, I only get called in for all the really interesting stuff. Plus people call me doctor. Don’t underestimate the ego boost you can get from that.

"My self-esteem is just fine, doctor, said Lucy. I love my job. I’m not sure I would want to do anything else. And I won’t always be on the bottom of the totem pole. Someday, I’ll have minions of my own."

Of that, I have no doubt. Jace stood up with a groan. He watched her for a moment as she continued to stroke the cat’s shoulder before adding, Can I leave you two alone, or do you need a chaperone?

What? she asked, pulling her hand back from the cage.

I need to give him the reversal shot, so unless you want to see how well he still bites, I suggest you take a step back. He already had the needle ready, so it only took him a few seconds to inject the drugs that would bring the cat out of his deep sleep. Just then his radio squawked. Jace’s assistant, Peter, was running late.

Jace threw his arms up in resignation. It never ends, does it? I know you’re beat, but if you wouldn’t mind staying for a few minutes more, I’ve got other patients before I go home for the day. Peter will be in to check on him as soon as he’s done with the koala.

I don’t mind, said Lucy. I’m off for the next two days. It’ll give me a chance to say goodbye. She gave the cat a couple more quick pats before standing up to face the doctor.

Just until Peter comes back, said Jace. Then you’re gone.

Take good care of him while I’m away.

I always do, he said and started walking toward the door.

You’ve got my number?

Yes, said Jace. I’ll see you next week, bunny hugger.

Grouch! she called after him and smiled.

He didn’t even bother to turn around, dismissing the taunt with a wave as he walked out of the door. He had been like a surrogate father to Lucy since she had met him, but his manners were sometimes lacking.

Ani was already beginning to paw listlessly at the air. Despite being trapped within a cage, the power and beauty of the big cat were impossible to deny. In the wild, he’d been the dominant predator of the Serengeti, but here he was reduced to lounging around posing for tourist’s snapshots. It was always a trade-off — the freedom to roam where you wanted for the security of walls and a steady diet. In his case, however, the choice had been taken away from Anastasios in the most violent way possible.

While still at university, Lucy had lucked into an invitation to join a UNEP-WCMC survey of West African biodiversity. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study her chosen field in its natural environment, all expenses paid. Naturally, she had jumped at the chance. The three-week tour dovetailed nicely with her master’s thesis on the ecology and conservation of large cats, so with her professor’s blessings, she had hopped on a plane to Mombasa.

Once in Africa, she’d been faced with the dire reality of the situation. The constantly growing population of humans in Ani’s former habitat was driving all of his kind to extinction. Soon, like his tiger cousins, there would be more lions behind bars than roaming in the wild. Some were still killed for sport, as though a wild animal with only teeth and claws was somehow an even match to a trophy hunter with a high-powered rifle hundreds of yards away. More often nowadays, however, big cats were killed for doing what they did naturally, thinning the herds of their weakest members. Unfortunately, those herds now belonged to humans, and those people were afraid, desperate, and well armed.

That was the story of Anastasios. Lucy’s group was only an hour away when news that an attack had occurred came in, so they climbed in their Land Rover and headed over to see the damage for themselves. Ani had been found by the game wardens, his entire pride slaughtered by poachers. The bastards had butchered many of his kin for their meat and pelts, but had been caught before they could get to him. Regardless, Anastasios had been left for dead with four bullet wounds, including one that had gone through his cheek and into his skull.

Like everyone else, Jace assumed that their were no survivors and casually walked up to inspect the animals. Ani surprised them all by lifting his head and growling at them. One of the wardens who was escorting them raised his rifle and pointed it at the lion, but the doctor grabbed the barrel and pushed it out of the way before he could shoot.

Lucy did not have a lot of heroes growing up, but she always counted Jace Gata among them for what he did that day. Being a veterinarian, he wouldn’t allow an animal to die if there was a chance that it could be saved. He managed to stabilize Ani until they could arrange for a helicopter to airlift him to the nearest veterinary hospital capable of handling the large cat, more than a hundred and fifty miles away.

Together she and Jace spent hours on the phone, trying to place him into a facility that could manage his long-term care. He would need months or possibly years of rehabilitation from his injuries, but they both believed that he was worth the effort. After talking at length with one of his connections in Los Angeles, Jace finally found a compassionate soul to sponsor Ani, and they made the arrangements to ship him to the California County Zoo where Jace worked. Ani was not expected to survive the journey, but once again, the lion surprised them all by not only surviving but flourishing.

It was Jace who had called the lion Anastasios. He’d told her it was the name of a Byzantine Emperor, and in Greek it meant reborn. Lucy couldn’t think of a name more fitting than that. Also, like his namesake, Ani had heterochromia — one eye was amber, but the other was blue.

When had Lucy completed her Masters, she’d applied to the zoo and had been accepted into an entry-level keeper position. Her supervisor, realizing Lucy’s expertise and education was going to waste, quickly reassigned her to the big cat pavilion where she was reunited with Ani. It was going on three years now that she’d cared for him. She hoped Jace was right, and there would be many more years to come.

She’d stood over her old friend for practically two days now, leaving only to do her job, and for bathroom and meal breaks. All of that stress was on top of an unusual restlessness and anxiety she’d been feeling for a couple of weeks now. She’d even tried to give up caffeine, but she still felt jittery like she’d downed two entire pots of coffee today. The stress and lack of sleep was starting to catch up with her, but she hadn’t wanted to leave until she knew that he was going to be all right. She closed her eyes and leaned back to let her head rest against the cold cinder block wall across from the cage, finally letting herself relax.

The sound of movement from behind the bars forced her to open her eyelids again. To Lucy’s surprise, the lion was gone. In his place was a man with long sandy brown hair, the color of the lion’s mane. He lay naked on his side in the same pose that Anastasios had been in, with his arms and legs stretched out from his body.

Stunned, Lucy was not sure what she was seeing. Her heart was pounding and her eyes opened wide. Her instincts kicked in and told her that the man didn’t belong in the cage, that he was in danger. She rushed to the door, her hands shaking as she wrestled with the keys, desperate to get him out of there before Ani woke up. I don’t know how you got in there, but don’t move. I’ll get you out.

She was about to turn the lock when she realized that her lion was nowhere to be found. All the slides were closed and locked. There was no way he could have gotten out, but clearly Ani was gone.

Strangely, the man in the cage seemed to be as surprised as she was. He rolled over and sat up slowly. "Who are you?"

As much as she was astonished by his sudden appearance in the enclosure, she was doubly taken aback by his beauty. His face was angelic with a near perfect symmetry and balance of features that Lucy had only ever seen in magazine ads. He had a physique like an ancient Greek statue come to life. As her eyes moved down his rippling torso, Lucy caught herself before she got too far, adding embarrassment to the flood of emotions she was feeling. She turned and fled.

A missing lion and a strange man locked in his exhibit was more than Lucy wanted to handle on her own. Overwhelmed and not knowing what else to do, Lucy ran outside and called for Jace, hoping that he was still within earshot. His van was just starting to pull away, but stopped short when he heard her calling. Jace jumped out and rushed toward her in a panic. What is it? he demanded. What’s wrong?

She didn’t answer. The words were stuck in her throat. Instead, she pulled him back inside the lion house with her. She pointed at the cage, but the man was gone. It was just Ani staring back at her through half-glazed eyes as though nothing had happened.

What the hell, she gasped. It seemed silly to even mention what she had seen now. She shook her head to clear out the cobwebs and decided that she must be even more tired than she realized.

Why are you freaking out? he asked. You scared the crap out of me.

Sorry, she said, finally catching her breath. I thought I saw a man in the cage. I guess I must have imagined it.

A man? asked Jace, suddenly serious. What did he look like?

I dunno, said Lucy. Tall, blond, naked.

I see. He cocked his head to one side as he looked into the enclosure. Well, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in there now, does there?

Lucy rolled her eyes and quietly sighed, more at her own foolishness than Jace’s mild mocking. I guess you were right. I need to get some rest. I’m fine now. It was a lie and an obvious one. But it was better than having him think she was losing her mind.

Do you want me to find someone to drive you home?

No, I’ll be all right. I just need a shower and a good night’s sleep. Besides, don’t you have patients waiting?

They’re not going anywhere, said Jace. At least let me walk you to your car.

No really, I’m fine, she said.

You’re exhausted, Jace insisted. You’re not staying a minute longer if I have to drag you out of here myself.

All right, you win, said Lucy. I’m going, but I don’t need a babysitter.

Then at least will you call me and tell me you got home safely?

I’ll text you.

He folded his arms and gave her a stern look, but her answer seemed to satisfy him. After they said their goodbyes, Lucy took one last look in the cage just to make sure the cat hadn’t changed back again. Ani was lying down again, still fighting off the after effects of the anesthetic like nothing was out of the ordinary. Lucy shrugged and left.

She stormed away from the exhibit toward the parking lot. As much as she loved Ani and wanted to be there for him, she also wanted to get out of there before anything else happened. It was bad enough that she was seeing gorgeous, naked men that weren’t there, she didn’t want to think of the teasing she’d get if anyone besides Jace found out. With any luck, this would all be forgotten by tomorrow.

Lucy took a deep breath to clear her head. She thought about the man she’d imagined. He’d been handsome, almost too handsome to be real. The most likely explanation was that she had passed out for a minute, and he was just some hypnopompic hallucination, a leftover dream. Brains did some weird things, especially when you pushed them too hard, and she was exhausted and stressed out from worrying about her cat.

By the time she reached her car, the experience was already starting to fade. In truth, she had been spending too much time at work and desperately needed to unwind. And if she was starting to fantasize about naked men living in the animal enclosures, then sleep, she decided, wasn’t the only thing she’d been missing lately. She tried to put the whole event out of her mind, but one persistent detail continued to bother her — how one of the man’s eyes had been amber, but the other had been blue.

December 3, 2011

We need to get together more often, said Felicia. I’d almost forgotten how much fun this is. She tried to take a sip of her sangria and laughed as the straw poked her in the nose.

Yeah, thanks again, you guys, said Lucy. I really needed this.

I think we all needed this, said Bonnie.

It’s been a bad couple of days for me, said Lucy. With a pregnant tiger, the fighting snow leopards, and now Ani’s infection, it feels like all I do is work and sleep.

And what about you? asked Felicia. You’ve been kind of out of it for the past few weeks.

I don’t know, said Lucy. I’m not tired or sick. It’s hard to explain. More like restless and unfocused. She stirred the ice in her drink idly. I probably just need a vacation.

There’s an idea, said Veronica, You should go sit on a beach somewhere and read a trashy romance novel or two.

Ooo, I can give you a list, said Kiala.

Okay, said Lucy. As long as it’s not about vampires or werewolves. I’m kind of burned out with them.

What’s wrong with vampires and werewolves? asked Kiala.

Lucy shrugged. Nothing, intrinsically. I just think they’ve been done to death. Like zombies. It’s hard to get excited about zombies anymore.

You were getting excited by zombies before? asked Veronica. You really do need a vacation.

The problem with zombie romance is their parts are always falling off at the worst possible times, said Bonnie.

And the smell, added Kiala. Nothing kills a lady boner faster than the stink of rotting flesh.

Gross, said Lucy. I only meant that I was looking for something different.

I think we need a new monster, said Felicia. They’ve all been rehashed so many times.

I say mermen, said Kiala.

Maybe something with tentacles, said Bonnie.

Felicia laughed. It always comes back to tentacles with you, doesn’t it?

I’m a woman who knows what she likes, said Bonnie, grinning wildly.

Speaking of knowing what you like, said Veronica, check out the guy by the bar.

Which one? asked Bonnie, leaning forward to get a better look.

Jeez, don’t stare at him, Bonnie, said Kiala

You mean the tall dude with wavy hair? said Bonnie. Let’s buy him a drink. Hey, barkeep...

Lucy grabbed Bonnie by the arm to hold her back. Whoa, easy there, tiger.

Veronica started it, whined Bonnie.

She shouldn’t even be looking, said Kiala.

Hey, I’m engaged, not dead, said Veronica.

I think Lucy’s the one he’s been checking out anyway, said Kiala.

What? No.

Whatever, dude, said Felicia, taking a quick glance. Deny it all you want.

Forget about him, said Lucy. This is supposed to be a girl’s night. So what about shapeshifters?

I thought we weren’t doing werewolves, said Veronica.

There has to be something besides werewolves, said Lucy. What about...were-cats?

There’s a were-everything, said Bonnie. I was just reading a graphic novel about a were-platypus.

Can I have that when you’re done? asked Kiala.

Absolutely, answered Bonnie. There’s even dinosaur erotica.

Lucy wasn’t sure whether Bonnie was kidding or not. How is that even...no, never mind. I don’t want to know.

The point is that there’s all kinds of shifters, continued Bonnie. Although maybe you should stay away from animals. It would be kinda like a doctor watching a medical drama. You’d be too busy pointing out all the mistakes to enjoy the show.

Maybe you’re right, said Lucy.

What you need is a real bodice ripper, said Felicia, with some beefy, shirtless highlander on the cover.

To shirtless highlanders! cheered Veronica, raising her glass in a toast.

After they had clinked their glasses and had taken sips of their cocktails, the music changed to an upbeat dance number. Felicia’s eyes lit up. Ooh, I love this song. Who wants to dance?

I do, said Veronica.

Me too, said Lucy.

She still felt off her game, and the alcohol probably hasn’t helping. Nevertheless, it was good to go out for a change. Having all four of her best friends in the same city at the same time was a rare treat. She wouldn’t have missed an evening out with them even if she’d had Ebola. So despite feeling like she was fighting off the flu, she danced through the next few songs like she didn’t have a care in the world.

When she glanced over at the bar, she saw that same guy was still watching her. Having men hit on her in clubs was certainly nothing new for Lucy. She was tall, five-foot-eleven in bare feet, with

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